Collateral Damage: Blockbusters and the Changing Narrative of War

Earlier this summer I saw both Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel in the theaters and I was struck by some similarities between the two films. For one, both films took inspiration from films that were popular when I was a kid. Nostalgia seemed a key element to their appeal.

What was disturbing, though, were the ways in which these movies differed from the movies of my childhood and the ways in which they seemed all too similar to some very real death and destruction occurring right now.

Don’t worry—this is not a post about how things were better when I was a kid, or how Superman has changed. But this is a post about how our narrative has changed, about conflict and about war.

The most disturbing thing to me about both Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel was the collateral damage in both films and the rather blasé treatment that it received. Let’s take Star Trek first. Much of the activity takes place in space which is, thankfully, largely uninhabited. But then we get to the point where the Enterprise and Khan’s ship are falling into the atmosphere of Earth. We get a tense scene with Kirk ultimately sacrificing himself to bring the Enterprise’s power back and the ship rights itself. There’s a moment of pause, of relief, of everyone feeling good. Then Khan’s ship goes plunging down right next to them, crashing into London San Francisco and causing plenty of property damage and, we must assume, off-screen death. Pay attention to the off-screen part. We don’t see the people dying in those buildings. But this being San Francisco, we must assume that some people died.

Unfortunately, there’s no attempt by the Enterprise crew to divert or prevent the crash from happening. Surely they must have known that the ship was falling. The Enterprise was damaged, yes, but there’s no attempt to use tractor beams, or ram it out into the ocean, or reverse a tachyon stream or whatever. The issue isn’t even raised. You could make the case that all of their systems were fried and they just barely managed to stay in the air, but even a failed attempt would be better than nothing, don’t you think?

Compare that to Man of Steel which has already received criticism for the gratuitous scenes of destruction in Metropolis. Once again, there’s no real attempt to prevent this or to move the battle between Superman and Zod elsewhere. Once again, we must assume that people died in these battles, and yet we don’t see any of these deaths.

Man of Steel Perry White

There’s a kind of movie shorthand at work here. We’re given a few, easily recognizable characters to stand in for all of humanity. In the case of Man of Steel that’s Perry White and the other people from The Daily Planet. If they are saved, then we can breathe a sigh of relief despite all the other nameless and faceless victims in Metropolis. And if Zod (or Khan) is defeated, then all of this damage and destruction was worth it because of the threat he poses. Because he’s so dangerous that killing him is necessary, and all of the casualties along the way are the price of doing business.

What does all this have to do with warfare? In my opinion quite a bit. We are living in a world where drone strikes are carried out with alarming frequency. Ostensibly these drones are tasked to go after high profile targets, but all too often they kill civilians. It’s rare that anyone in the government speaks about these civilians—how many of them, who they are. They are nameless and faceless. They don’t matter to the narrative that’s being told. We’re not reminded often enough that thousands have died in drone strikes in Pakistan over the past 9 years. It’s not stressed that over a hundred of those deaths were children. They are not important to the narrative.

That narrative tells us that these things happen, that sometimes mistakes are made. That in order to protect our security and get the bad guys, sometimes innocent lives are lost. They’re unfortunate accidents. Incidental. It’s the cost of our freedom. In the end, though, we should feel safer. And when those strikes deliver a high-profile kill (a named leader in Al-Qaeda, for example) it’s that name that’s broadcast loudly and clearly in our news reports.

That this happens in real life is disturbing enough. That our movies—our fantasies—reinforce this narrative somehow makes things worse because they are slyly helping to cement those elements in our expectations. When people we have come to regard as heroes (fictional though they may be) act in this manner, it cheapens what it means to be a hero.

Look, I’m not saying that there’s any collusion here between movie makers and the architects of war, but I do think the similarities are disturbing, and maybe we should be questioning these assumptions rather than just swallowing them. Some might say that that is just the reality we live in and our films reflect that. I feel that even in action-packed, special effects filled blockbusters, our fictional heroes should be better than that. They should at the very least aspire to something better, and we should expect them to do so.

I’d like to end by contrasting those movies with Pacific Rim, a movie that’s built on the bones of kaiju films, a genre that delights in the destruction of cities. While Pacific Rim has its share of property destruction the difference is in the value of human life. It is mentioned again and again in the movie that the purpose of the Jaegers is to protect humans, to prevent deaths. Indeed the first scene of the movie shows a Jaeger team risking their lives to save the crew of a ship off the coast of Alaska. It’s not just about pummeling the monsters, it’s about saving humanity. All of them. Every NPC that’s seen or not seen. When the kaiju threaten Hong Kong, the population of the city is stressed, and the Jaeger pilots risk their lives (some sacrificing themselves) to hold the line and protect the people on land. Say what you will about the movie, but that’s the kind of hero I want.

Maybe instead of our films reflecting back the propaganda of the present, our films, especially our fantasy films, should inspire something better. And if they do reflect our present, surely they could delve into the consequences?

I’m sure some people will think I’m reading too much into this, that this is just mindless entertainment. I look forward to your comments below. But I’ll just say one last thing—topics like this shouldn’t be mindless. And can’t we have mindful entertainment instead?


Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer and narrator whose reviews and columns appear on LitReactor. You can follow him on his website, and he tweets @rajanyk.

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